edinburgh city guide

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Our Edinburgh city guide comes to us from Eloise Leeson, a linguistics student, blogger and Edinburgh local. Today Eloise takes us on a tour through the eclectic neighborhoods of this historic city with a great list of sites, eats and goodies. Thanks, Eloise, for this wonderful guide! — Stephanie

CLICK HERE for the full guide after the jump!

”Edinburgh is an experience / A city of enormous gifts / Whose streets sing of history / Whose cobbles tell tales.”

It’s hard to sum up this glorious capital in a few words, but the late Scottish poet Alan Bold does it well. Edinburgh truly is an experience. There aren’t just tartan tat, bagpipes and jimmy hats on offer (although you’ll find all of that in abundance); Edinburgh houses unique boutiques, indie outlets and an incredible variety of coffee shops and eateries, as well as a mind-boggling assortment of things to do and see. Museums and galleries are nestled beside skate-smart hangouts and shops where the staff are dressed like pirates. Independent shops pepper the golden medieval old town, whilst chic cocktail bars lurk beneath the lofty heights of the Georgian houses on George Street. Below you’ll hopefully find not only some suggestions to spark your interest in this inspiring capital but also an overall sense of this festive city.

The Royal Mile

Technically not an actual mile, the old “high street” of Edinburgh is still one of the city’s most vibrant attractions. Snack on Turkish mezze, explore local gift shops and take a trip down Cockburn (pronounced Co-burn, or you’ll get giggled at by the locals) Street for cheap gemstone necklaces, legal highs and cute dresses galore, all under the protective shadow of the Edinburgh Castle.

Edinburgh Castle — Expensive but worth a visit to see the Crown Jewels, the thoughtful renovation and of course, stunning views of the city below.

St. Giles Cathedral — One of the most beautiful cathedrals in Scotland, often called the “mother church of world Presbyterianism.” The stained-glass windows are worth a visit alone!

Present — A little shop tucked away at the bottom of the Royal Mile. You’ll find great trinkets, unusual wrapping and quirky gifts galore. Think paper aeroplanes, vintage baubles and kitsch jewellery, all for great prices.

Rene Walrus — Apart from having one of the coolest names ever, Rene Walrus is a go-to for all things glittery. Blushing brides-to-be and magpies alike will be enthralled by the handmade jewellery on offer, loaded down with Swarovski crystals. Not only can you buy beads here, you can also commission the lovely staff behind the counter to make you something pretty.

In my past days as a belly-dancing teacher, Hilary’s Bazaar was my one-stop shop for costumes, music and more sparkles than you could shake one of their incense sticks at. Classes are also on offer, as are a great assortment of instructional DVDs, silk skirts in every colour of the rainbow and traditional Egyptian instruments.

Ragamuffin houses a gorgeous collection of comfortable, colourful women’s clothing sure to keep out the chilly Scottish weather.

Empires Turkish Cafe is a gorgeous little snug found just down from Present — bright lanterns hang in clusters from the ceiling, and the mezzo is cheaply priced and utterly delicious. Open for both lunch and dinner, Empires does not serve alcohol but has no problem with BYOB for a small corkage fee, and be sure to catch their live music evenings if you can.

For something slightly different, wander a little way up the Royal Mile and check out the HQ of the Scottish Storytelling Society. This literary hub houses both library and cafe, as well as hosts events throughout the year. A nifty hostel for those of you who don’t mind roughing it too much is located just next door — The Royal Mile Backpackers. For those that want to stay in the same area but with a little more comfort thrown in, the Radisson sits just at the crossroads of the Royal Mile.

Cockburn Street

Just off the Royal Mile, you’ll find Cockburn Street winding away from the castle and down toward Princes Street and “central” Edinburgh. Here you’ll find fantastic cafes, art spaces and some seriously funky shops — the fashion is often modeled by the students frequently found here. Before you start your descent, I suggest you pause in Hunter Square and indulge yourself at Chocolate Soup. The focus is on their sinfully good hot chocolates and other drinks, but they do a mean variety of soups and sandwiches (all gorgeously fresh) and have some sickly cakes on offer too, just to help you on your way to glycemic meltdown. The best part? It’s better priced than the Starbucks round the corner!

One of my favourite stops on Cockburn Street has to be Cavanagh Antiques. This family-run enterprise is an absolute emporium of antique and rarefied jewellery, medals, war memorabilia and silver tea sets, all piled high in this tiny shop. The staff are friendly and the collection is fantastic and not too achingly expensive, either.

Lava, a few doors down, is just about as different from Cavanagh Antiques as possible. This hip shop features fun accessories and daft presents, religious action figures, retro coasters, posters and general knick-knacks. Don’t miss their hilarious card collection, either.

Tallula, further up toward the Royal Mile, is a simply beautiful shop filled with herbs, jewellery and witchy tools for those of you who may be interested in such things. Native American white sage can be found nestled among precious stones, and Indian garlands rub shoulders with heavy silver jewellery. Between £15 and £50 for a handmade necklace, the prices are tempting, too.

If you’re getting peckish, I highly recommend you stop at Viva Mexico, a family-run restaurant on Cockburn Street, for a bite to eat. All their produce is locally sourced, and their food is made from traditional Mexican recipes. Their focus on freshness means that their dishes really do taste authentic, as well as fantastic, and with a lunch menu starting at £3.50 a dish for tapas-style food, you really haven’t got an excuse not to stop by.

Clothing-wise, there are no better places to visit than Cookie and Pie In The Sky for quirky, indie, handmade fashion. Leg warmers, crazy tights, printed t-shirts, edible jewellery and wildly coloured nail varnishes make up most of the stock in Pie In The Sky, whereas Cookie is slightly more restrained retro-glam — rockabilly petticoats and fun formals reign supreme.

Also found on Cockburn Street is an assortment of vicarious highs, gothic glamour, Asian-imported kawaii and an olde sweetie shoppe — be sure you look out for these, as well.

Victoria Street and the Grassmarket

If, however, you’d rather walk up toward the castle than down toward Princes Street Gardens, you simply have to visit Victoria Street and the Grassmarket. For anyone with an interest in knitting boutiques, liquid delis, galleries, cheese caves and vintage clothing, these two areas are non-negotiable.

Victoria Street

Starting you off on Victoria Street is the Old Town Bookshop, a secondhand bookshop with thoughtfully selected wares and antique prints. Be sure to rummage well — you’ll get some gratifying finds. And while the prices are a little on the heavy side, finding that first leather-bound edition or an armful of historical etchings is simply priceless.

If you happen to be a stylish gentleman (or indeed romantically involved with one), then pop your head into Walker Slater. I go into this shop purely because it is such a treat to do so — it’s rare to spot a more beautifully executed window display than theirs. More Savile Row than anything else, Walker Slater specialises in Scottish tweeds for both men and women. Not cheap, but you won’t find anyone better equipped to make you a bespoke waistcoat. Check out Vintage Barnardo’s in the Grassmarket for a pocket watch to go with!

Swish, located beside Walker Slater, is a world apart from the tailored tweed and polished leather of its neighbour. Men and women’s clothing has never been so cool. With lines such as Chunk (who else would design an AT-AT ice cream van print?) and David and Goliath providing some of the best t-shirts around, covetable handbags from Nica and beautiful summer wear from Darling, Swish’s collection is ever-surprising, inventive and reasonably priced.

Food on Victoria Street should not be overlooked. You’ll walk by the pungent I. J. Mellis cheesemonger, the fabulously named Cuttea Sark tea merchants and the world’s first liquid deli, Demijohn. Don’t miss out on these places even if Oink, with its pulled roast-pork rolls and applesauce, is tempting you! Hula, too, once called “that place at the end of the rainbow” by a critic, is the best juice bar I have ever encountered. Their drink and food menu are both reasonably priced and can’t help but put a smile on your face. Their produce is locally sourced, organic for the most part, and prepared by a friendly and fantastically dressed team. Tip: come here for Illy coffee and chili and chocolate porridge. You’ll not find a finer breakfast anywhere.

k1 Yarns Knitting Boutique is a knitting paradise — the prettiest, softest yarns, sourced locally or from UK artisans by passionate owner Katharine Walker are sure to please knitters and crocheters looking for something a little bit more unusual to add to their collection. Also to be found in k1 Yarns are some delicious teas, knitting classes and a warm, cosy atmosphere where visitors are invited to sit, relax, chat and of course, knit!

Red Door Gallery is an independent gallery-cum-boutique featuring a wonderfully eclectic mix of goods. Red Door supports independent and emerging artists and designers and always offers affordable treasures and wonderful service. Their stationery and paper goods are simply lovely and thoughtfully selected, as is their jewellery and artwork. Don’t miss this one.

The Grassmarket

Somehow this amazing area, situated in the heart of old-town Edinburgh, manages to maintain a festive feel year round. That may be because the impressive Grassmarket Traders’ Association has a say in all developments of this recently pedestrianised area, so eating alfresco in family-owned restaurants can remain a pleasure, as can shopping in the individual and independent boutiques you’ll find here.

Analogue is one of the hippest shops on the block. Books, art, emerging graphic designers, gallery space, collaborations —Analogue is all this and so much more. There are some real gems to be unearthed — t-shirts and magazines for one, as well as work from local designers, who are often invited to collaborate with the owners with unique and impressive results every time.

Just around the corner from Analogue you’ll find Vintage Barnardo’s. It is the kind of charity shop you want all other charity shops to be — chock-full of vintage treasures, no tat in sight and cheaply priced, with proceeds going to vulnerable children. So, yes, you can buy whatever you fancy — this kind of shopping is satisfying, and 100% guilt free.

Sandwiched between the two shops above you’ll find Mussels and Steak, perfect for filling peckish tummies. Get yourself a bowl of their Scottish rope-grown mussels (a kilo’s worth) drenched in leek, cream and gorgonzola sauce for just £12.25 and a glass of crisp white wine and sit outside in the sunshine, watching the world go by.

If meat isn’t quite your thing, you can amble down to Blackcherry, a little cafe tucked away on the Grassmarket’s lefthand side. Here you’ll find good coffee and friendly staff ready and willing to whip you up a surprisingly fresh and flavourful sandwich that you can enjoy inside or out with a slice of homemade cake for afters.

Just up from Blackcherry and down from Mussels and Steak, you’ll find Armstrong’s — or part of it. This giant secondhand emporium is the grandfather of all vintage shops in Edinburgh and is one of the most extensive and reasonably priced places to snap up a pair of 80s suede cowboy boots, costume jewellery or crazily patterned dance wear. The gentleman’s section here includes a superb array of paisley dressing gowns for the inner Hugh Heffner, and be sure not to miss their belt collection.

Fabhatrix is a real one-off. They make all kinds of fantastic hats — purple felt bonnets stuck with peacock and pheasant feathers, for example. “If you wish to turn heads, wear a hat” is particularly true if that hat comes handmade and uniquely available from Fabhatrix.

For the geologists out there, Mr. Wood’s Fossils is sure to be a hit. The staff are infinitely knowledgeable about not only their fossils but also their precious stones. Sure to be a hit for children, too. Even if rocks aren’t your thing, it’s well worth stopping by for the experience.

Down toward the other end of the Grassmarket and the more commercial Lothian Road and Princes Street, you’ll happen upon Godiva Boutique, Helios Fountain and RedDog Music.

Godiva Boutique is a simply beautiful shop filled to bursting with unique and independently designed clothing (including an in-house line), kitsch jewellery and a very fine selection of accessories. What’s not to love?

Those who are musical will delight in RedDog Music, a local store with an extensive selection of instruments, informative classes and lessons and friendly, approachable staff.

Helios Fountain is a delightful shop specialising in children’s toys, beads, games, Fimo and pretty trinkets — all reasonably priced. They offer a very interesting array of philosophical and spiritual literature, too, and the staff are as helpful as can be.

If cocktails and slinky dresses are more your idea of an evening, be sure to stop by Dragonfly, a quirky, stylish bar, for a stunning and meticulously prepared drink of choice. Their mixologists know and take pleasure in their art, and they’ll be sure to serve you a drink you’ll want to savour all night long. But at around £6 a cocktail, why not indulge in a few?

If your travels take you away from the Grassmarket during the evening then wander back up Victoria Street and along George IV Bridge until you come to The Elephant House, the home of Harry Potter. This elephant-themed cafe not only offers internet access and delicious home baking but also a great variety of teas and coffees. Grab yourself a drink, pull up a chair and people-watch. Be sure to add your name to “Dumbledore’s Army” on the bathroom wall before you leave.

Edinburgh City Centre

Though the city centre of Edinburgh is somewhat commercial, it still merits a visit. Like Princes Street and George Street, it offers many high-street labels, but there are a few eating and drinking gems to be found in this part of town. Take Bramble, just down from George Street, for example. Recently voted one of the top 20 bars in the world, it is one of the best post-work watering holes in Edinburgh. The house cocktail, “Bramble,” is a thing of beauty, as is the Mint 500, served to you in a vintage teacup perched on the stem of a wine glass. Get there early and ensconce yourself in a snug — table service is another perk of this cosy, stylish speakeasy.

If you’d rather wake up to a coffee on George Street than wind down with a cocktail, stop by the Wellington Cafe for a flat white or long black and a home-baked treat. The cafe offers soup and sandwiches, but it’s more about the coffee than anything else. Should you feel peckish, however, George Street does have a wide variety of restaurants and eateries, although you may find these a little expensive if you plan on doing some serious shopping later. Valvona and Crolla, however, is one of Edinburgh’s most famous family-run chains and with delicatessens scattered across the city, they have a reasonably priced and absolutely delicious restaurant and cafe/bar that is well worth stopping by. Hopefully the sun will be shining and you can sit outside and watch the world go by in St. Andrew’s Square sipping truly excellent coffee, but if not, and hunger strikes, split one of their divine pizzas (try the fennel, mozzarella, Italian sausage and garlic pizza with bitter greens) from their first-floor restaurant and enjoy the view of the shoppers below.

With Harvey Nichols so close, who could really resist stopping by? In no way could anything here be considered reasonably priced, but it’s great fun to look around (I love ogling the window displays), and their food hall with its chocolate boutique(!), bar and Fourth Floor restaurant (with a stunning view over Edinburgh) is a real visual treat.

Broughton Street

Perhaps a little overlooked, Broughton Street in Edinburgh houses a surprising array of great coffee shops and eateries, as well as unusual shops and galleries. Kick-start a morning there with some of Edinburgh’s best coffee from Artisan Roast. This tiny hole in the wall offers incredible coffees and teas from knowledgeable and friendly staff. Tuck yourself away in the “mooch” (look out for the lamps made out of tea cups and cafetieres) or sit outside. Artisan Roast also offers bags of their hand-roasted beans and good advice for coffee newbies. I can’t recommend their rose and black pepper hot chocolate highly enough.

Need a sticky bun to soak up the caffeine? Head next door to Pani Solinska for a rose-jam-filled doughnut and traditional Polish bread, or stop by Urban Angels for a quick and delicious food fix. Their delicatessen — with its fresh, hot-smoked salmon, avocado and wasabi mayo sandwiches, organic chocolate, roasted butternut squash and other seasonal delights — is truly incredible, and they also have a restaurant on Hanover Street, should you wish to sit down while sampling their thoughtfully sourced menu. The best part? Urban Angels’ focus is on food that won’t break the bank or cost the earth.

On the subject of food, Real Foods on Broughton Street is a great store with friendly staff that offers organic, raw and all-around healthy produce. They cater to vegans, vegetarians, those with specific dietary needs and health-conscious meat eaters. From frozen edamame beans to powdered wheatgrass and superfood juices, Real Foods has it all.

If you can, poke your head into UNIONgallery, an independent gallery space that showcases work from local artists, designers and sculptors. An oasis of calm in an otherwise busy city street.

Last but not least, The Olive Branch Bistro. Their well-priced, seasonal menu and casual decor make for a great spot for a relaxed lunch. Be sure to try their sautéed kale and soke bacon and frozen Cranachan parfait for dessert. Maybe not together, though.

Nicholson Street

Up from Princes Street and over North Bridge, Nicholson Street offers great coffee, quaint eateries, the other half of Armstrong’s, the Festival Theatre and the Royal Scottish Museum. Black Medicine Coffee Company is a great local spot opposite the glass front of the Festival Theatre offering teas, coffees and an array of home baking. Their sandwiches and rolls are prepared off-site, so watch out if you have any allergies or special dietary requirements. Your coffee order will get shouted out when it’s ready, so keep your ears pinned back — annoying, but the coffee is definitely worth it. Black Magic seems to have a buzz that no other coffee shop in Edinburgh can quite match, so do stop here if you can.

Located just up the road from Black Medicine you’ll find Spoon. Be careful not to miss it, as you need to go up a flight of stairs (they do have disabled access). This cafe/bistro focuses on good coffee, tasty baking and an incredible all-day menu. Try the soup for lunch (one vegan, one meaty) and fresh bread, and tuck into the fabulous retro decor of this bright, airy space. The window spots are great for people watching, though they can get a little chilly, and the bathrooms are downright freezing (keep yourself amused with the 70s knitting patterns pasted on the doors and walls), but you’ll find no finer place to refuel and snigger over old copies of Viz magazine. Try to grab an armchair if you can — it will only add to Spoon’s cosy, homey atmosphere.

Not quite on Nicholson Street but close enough and worth the walk is a sushi bar/bistro called Bonsai. Their menu offers some of the freshest, tastiest sushi and Japanese cuisine found in town. The bistro is small, the decor is cosy, and the service is fast and friendly. And if the food didn’t put a smile on your face, the prices certainly will.

Having already spoken of Armstrong’s, you’ll find the second half of this vintage giant a little way up Nicholson Street. This half of the company is much the same as that located in the Grassmarket but a little smaller. If your feet are getting tired, distract yourself with Choco-Latte, The Finishing Touch and Anteaques on the way.

Morningside and Bruntsfield

Morningside and Bruntsfield are areas of Edinburgh that are perhaps slightly more “upmarket” than the Grassmarket, but no less charming. There’s a great focus on food here — dining in, eating out and gourmet shopping, but don’t miss Fabulous Fakes or The Owl and The Pussycat, either. Morningside and Bruntsfield have some real one-offs.

The Little Bead Shop specialises in pretty glass beads, Fimo, findings, Swarovski, fresh water pearls and gorgeous silver clay for affordable prices. Not to be missed by those budding jewellers out there.

S. Luca’s gelateria and Italian cafe is certainly popular with families and the yummy-mummy crowd (and I wouldn’t recommend lunch there because it can get pretty busy, and there are more adventurous places to dine in), but S. Luca’s has a charm of its own. Try their handmade chocolates (the rose creams are good), and let them whip you up a fantastical ice-cream sundae as a perfect afternoon treat.

Continuing with the chocolate theme, Coco of Bruntsfield may just change your life. Suppliers of divine hot chocolates to Artisan Roast on Broughton Street, Coco of Bruntsfield elevates chocolate to a whole new level. Lavender hot chocolate? Yes. Bars of white chocolate with dried raspberries? Yes. Chocolate-making classes, great prices and lovely, knowledgeable staff? Yes, yes, yes.

Montpeliers, found closer to Morningside, is highly unusual in the sense that it is part of a chain of eateries, bars and clubs but maintains its own individual character and a surprising level of quality. Brunch here is a truly wonderful experience. Try their soft, white morning roll stuffed with crisp Ayrshire bacon or their three-egg, brie, mushroom and caramelised onion omelette. Lunch and dinner aren’t too bad either, and the prices are very reasonable for the quality of the food and service you’ll receive.

But should you fancy a truly unique experience, head over to Falko’s Fein Bäckerei for a quick cup of coffee and an ogle at their rustic-chic interior. I won’t lie, the service can be a little dodgy, and their breakfasts, though reasonably priced, can be a let-down, but here it’s really all about the baking. If it’s sunny, grab some beautiful traditional German bread, a couple of warm pretzels and some bits and bobs from Peckham’s deli counter and have yourself a picnic on The Meadows. Be sure to get there early though, as the queues are proof of the quality.

Moving away from German specialties and closer to French, when in Morningside, it could be considered de rigueur to stop by Henri’s. With its mouthwatering sandwiches, beautiful beverages, delicious (if strongly scented) cheeses and thoughtfully selected wines, Henri’s is certainly verging on the pricey side, but there’s no nicer place to do a spot of indulgent food shopping or snacking.

If, however, it’s afternoon tea you want, then there’s no better place to be than Loopy Lorna’s. This whimsical, cheerful and utterly charming tea room has shot to one of Edinburgh’s top spots for a pot of tea (watch out for the hand-knitted cosies) and a slice of glorious home-baked cake. Or tiffin. Or a cupcake. Or an oatmeal cookie. Or scones with clotted cream, jam and butter. Be sure to keep your eyes peeled for the clouds with the silver lining, cuckoo clocks galore and lovely mismatched china that makes tucking into afternoon tea or a morning treat a real pleasure.

Papilio is a world away from Loopy Lorna’s, but no less delicious for it. This Italian restaurant is great not only because of its diverse yet authentic menu, but also because of its charming, somewhat modern interior and fantastic prices. A lovely spot for a romantic evening’s meal.

It’s not just food you’ll find in this area of Edinburgh, though, so try and stop by Fabulous Fakes if you can and have a gratifying paw through some sparkly costume jewellery or through bars of beautiful organic chocolate at The Chocolate Tree. Should you feel like taking in a movie, stop by The Dominion Cinema and revel in its twenties glam, art deco decor and cosy feel. Paying a little extra will also ensure you either a plush leather armchair beneath a fairy-lit “starry sky” or a sofa with a private bar. Watching films has never been so luxurious!

While this guide has tried its best to be as informative and interesting as possible, inevitably some great haunts will have been left out. Hopefully those I mentioned will spark your interest in this one-of-a-kind capital, and those that haven’t will be pleasant discoveries along the way, especially if you go in August and soak up the incredible atmosphere of The Edinburgh Festival. Happy exploring!!

  1. Thankyou Charlene for mentioning our B and B in Bruntsfield/Merchiston. It is indeed such a lovely area of Edinburgh with all its individual shops,bars and eateries. Thanks to to Design Sponge. What a lovely website and so accurately informed.

  2. What a nice review of my home town and the place I too love to blog about. For more specific Edinburgh recommendations for places to eat, drink, sleep and shop visit our guide to independent Edinburgh.

  3. Maggie says:

    Edinburgh was the best home I’ve ever had, so this guide is quite nostalgic. I would recommend Earthy (found in three different spots in the city: http://www.earthy.uk.com/) for the freshest, most delectable locally grown, organic fare. The atmosphere in the Cannonmills site is great for a candlelit dinner, or just tea and cake in the late afternoon after work. However, the original location over in Causewayside is a must for both the layout and the staff, who are ever so friendly and enthusiastic. Enjoy!


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